BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — After eight events covering rivers, lakes and man-made reservoirs from Florida to Louisiana to New York and in venues known for the Monkey Trial, the Liberty Bell and the finest country music theaters, the 2014 Bassmaster Elite Series regular season is finally in the books.
But the year is far from over. What’s left is the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship on Bays de Noc out of Escanaba, Mich., Sept. 18-21. There, more than two dozen Bassmaster Classic berths and the 2014 AOY title will be up for grabs.
Only six anglers have a mathematical chance to win the 2014 AOY award: Greg Hackney (664 points), Aaron Martens (649), Todd Faircloth (647), Jacob Powroznik (623), Keith Combs (623) and Mark Davis (618). Hackney, Faircloth, Powroznik and Combs would be first-time winners. Martens is the reigning AOY and a two-time winner while Davis has three titles — the last awarded in 2001.
At the last Elite event on New York’s Cayuga Lake, Hackney accomplished two things. He won the tournament and the first-place prize of $100,000, and he put some distance between himself and his AOY challengers. With a 15-point lead over Martens, Hackney controls his own destiny. If he can finish in the Top 15 at Bays de Noc, he’s guaranteed the title. If not, he leaves the door open for Martens ... and perhaps others.
Martens is 15 points behind Hackney, and Faircloth is 17 back. Both are regulars in the AOY hunt, and both will need help from the leader if they’re going to win the title. If Hackney has a good tournament, Martens and Faircloth are fishing for second place. But since Bays de Noc is new water for the Elite pros, it’s tough to handicap this all-star field. Martens has a reputation as a finesse angler and smallmouth whisperer, but Hackney and Faircloth are extremely versatile and at the peak of their powers.
In fourth and fifth place are Powroznik and Combs, both with 623 points (Powroznik leads by virtue of a tiebreaker). Powroznik won earlier this year at Toledo Bend, and locked up the Bassmaster Rookie of the Year award at Cayuga. Since even the last-place angler at the AOY Championship earns 51 points (the winner gets 100), it’s going to be very difficult for Powroznik or Combs to come from so far behind to win. Combs posted his best AOY finish last year when he was fifth.
As for Davis, his chances for an AOY title this year would be best described as very, very slim. Essentially, he’d have to win the championship while Hackney finished 47th or worse and the others would have to struggle as well. Nevertheless, Davis has been a big part of the race this year, leading in points for much of the season. If he could pull out a miracle at Bays de Noc, he’d be the oldest AOY in history at nearly 51.
In addition to the race for AOY, a large number of 2015 Bassmaster Classic berths are at stake in the AOY Championship. Since the Classic’s inception in 1971, a spot in the Super Bowl of Bass Fishing has been a benchmark of success in the sport. The 2015 Classic is no exception and will be held Feb. 20-22 on Lake Hartwell out of Greenville, S.C.
Exactly how many Classic spots are up for grabs is difficult to determine since the number of Elite anglers who will “double qualify” through AOY points and by winning an Elite Series or Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens event will not be known until the Bassmaster Tournament Trail season ends in October. Nevertheless, somewhere between the Top 34 anglers in the AOY race and the Top 38 (plus double qualifiers who ranked lower than that) will be Classic bound.
Since the scoring system for the AOY Championship is the same as that used for regular season Elite events (100 points for first place, 99 for second, 98 for third, etc.) and only 50 anglers will be competing, the fewest points anyone can earn is 51. That will make big changes in the standings difficult and unlikely. In fact, the Top 22 anglers in the race are already mathematically guaranteed Classic spots. And on a practical level, it will extremely difficult to unseat anyone in the Top 32.
On the other end of things, anglers currently ranked 46th or lower have a big hurdle to leap and will need a combination of high finishes on their parts and struggles on the parts of anglers who are on the bubble, if they’re going to be fishing on Hartwell next February. What that means from a spectator’s perspective is that the real battle will be taking place between the anglers who rank from about 33rd (Brandon Palaniuk) to 45th (Andy Montgomery) because they have the greatest chance of losing or gaining ground.
Of particular note are two veteran anglers in that group. The first is Kevin Short, currently ranked 34th. That he’s in Classic contention is a testament to his personal resiliency and skill with a rod and reel. Short missed the fourth tournament of the year after his Arkansas home was destroyed by a tornado. To qualify for the Classic despite missing an event is a rare accomplishment. The last time it happened was 2006 when Randy Howell, Alton Jones and Kevin VanDam made the Classic despite being disqualified at one tournament. That season there were 11 events, so they had 10 others to make up lost ground. For Short to do it in an eight tournament season, would be even more impressive.
The other angler of note is Jones, currently 39th in AOY points. Jones is no stranger to Classic competition — he’s been to 16 previous championships — but to miss this one would sting more than most. Hartwell was the site of his Classic win in 2008.
The other big story in the 2014 AOY race is who’s not involved — Kevin VanDam. After 24 consecutive Bassmaster Classic appearances and nearly as many Top 10 AOY finishes in that time, VanDam struggled this year and finished 53rd — out of the AOY race and out of the 2015 Classic. He has seven AOY titles, which ranks behind only Roland Martin, who has nine.
VanDam’s streak of consecutive Classic appearances is second only to Rick Clunn’s 28 in a row between 1974 and 2001. Both have won four Classics.
And KVD’s nine straight seasons in the Top 10 of the AOY race ranks behind only Larry Nixon’s 12 in a row (1977-88) and the 11 in a row posted by Clunn (1975-85) and VanDam himself (1992-2002).